Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Which Language?


Photo (c) Amy Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 15 March 2004.

This is the question my six year old asks her big sister every Saturday morning as they get ready to play together. The first time I heard her say it really brought home to me the fact that my daughters are bilingual. Of course I knew that they speak both English and Hebrew, but to hear them decide which language to use for playing made me realize that, unlike most Israeli children of native English-speaking parents, my daughters are equally comfortable in both languages. Most bilingual children I know (and I know quite a few) will speak to me in English, then slip back into Hebrew at the first opportunity. As my husband loves to point out, our girls are so comfortable in English, they even argue in that language. Anyone who has ever lost his temper knows that it is difficult to fight with someone in a foreign language.

A number of years ago, the English Speaking Residents' Association (of Israel) published a small book entitled "Grandpa and Grandma Can Speak Hebrew". I purchased a copy for my parents a short time after I moved to Israel. When I received the book in the mail, I was assailed by conflicting feelings. On the one hand, this charming "pocket English/Hebrew phrase book for English-speaking grandparents" provided a way for visiting grandparents to understand their Israeli grandchildren. On the other hand, it seemed a tragedy to me that such a booklet is needed. As it turns out, my parents have never needed that book. My children's English is at least on a par with the English of children their ages in America.

Of course, that did not happen by chance. When we first moved to Israel, my older daughter was only two years old. I worried that, in a few months when she started preschool here, she would be scared and confused because she didn't know much Hebrew. I started speaking to her in that language in order to help her become more comfortable. A close friend, who had moved here with his parents from New York when he was a child, soon advised me to stop, saying "If you don't speak to her in English, soon she won't speak English at all." Luckily, I listened to our friend. Liat soon adjusted to speaking Hebrew in preschool, and English at home. Of course, the road was not without bumps. At one point she decided it was embarrassing to speak English with me in public. My husband, in a stroke of genious, convinced her that speaking English in public was like having a "secret language" that few could understand.

In tutoring Israeli children in English, I have discovered that having one English-speaking parent in the home is often not enough to ensure that a child will be fluent in spoken English. In Israeli homes where only one parent speaks English to the children, they invariably prefer Hebrew to English. They often refuse to answer in English to the parent who speaks that language. As a result, their spoken English often ends up being about the same as that of their Israeli classmates who have no exposure to English at home. Without my husband's support and participation in speaking mostly English at home, our girls would likely have had great difficulty carrying on a conversation in English. Some people have said that he, as an Israeli and therefore someone who is not completely fluent in English, is teaching our children grammatical mistakes and modeling a non-native accent. Actually, the contrary is true. The girls correct him when he makes mistakes, and do so in unaccented English.

In addition to speaking English in the home (and watching movies and television in English, and listening to American popular music), my girls both enjoy writing and reading, and being read to, in English. Often after we finish reading a chapter (or two) of our current book, we discuss the plot and characters, and speculate on what might happen in the next chapter. This is a pleasant and relaxing way to wind down at the end of the day; I don't understand why more parents don't do the same. Not only are they depriving their children of the benefits of such an activity, but they themselves are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to get to know their children better. Often such discussions can lead to conversations on a wide range of issues that hit close to home.

What about Hebrew?, you may ask. Many immigrants to Israel abandoned English as quickly as they could, in order to become "true" Israelis. While I can understand that motivation, I disagree with it on several counts, not the least of which is that English-speakers are every bit as much Israelis as anyone else. But the fact is, every child who attends school in Israel learns to read, write and speak in Hebrew. Both of my children are far more fluent than I can ever hope to be in that language, even though it is their "second" language. They both read and write for pleasure in that language, and speak Hebrew with an Israeli (not American) accent. That happened without any help from me; I cannot say the same would be true about English.

(c) Amy Samin

1 comment:

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Amy, lovely post. I miss corresponding with you and can't find your email address! My husband will be working with a man from Yemen, so I thought of you. Hope all is well--